The Steelers are Mike Tomlin’s Team, When the Offensive is Good (And Bad)
It’ll be the head coach, and not offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who sets the tone and determines the direction in which Kenny Pickett and Co. are permitted to head this season.
They’ve arrived at Saint Vincent College with the arrow pointing up, but despite an offseason flush with promise, there’s still one thing that can screw it all up.
That, at least, is a popular narrative among Steelers fans, the vast majority of which, it seems, would have embraced firing the embattled offensive coordinator as addition by subtraction.
The ire and outrage are understandable given all the offense hasn’t done the past two seasons, but it’s also misguided.
Canada, according to his job description, may be the guy in charge but he’s not the guy calling the shots.
That point was emphasized, unintentionally, perhaps, but clarified nonetheless, by quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan during OTAs.
Sullivan was asked specifically about the likelihood the offense would open up this season, whether more would be asked of if not demanded from now-second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett.
The response was revealing:
“There are always going to be guidelines or parameters, if you will, in terms of a game, where, ‘You know what? This is a really great offense (the Steelers are playing against). We’re gonna have to keep pace, so to speak.’ Or, maybe, ‘This is an offense which we know our defense is matching up well against and maybe our emphasis is maybe more ball-control oriented.’
“All these things are discussions that start with Coach Tomlin and the direction that he gives us offensively through Matt moving forward.”
That’s not to suggest it’s head coach Mike Tomlin doing the play-designing or the play-calling.
But it’s Tomlin’s philosophy as it relates to the overall aggressiveness, or lack thereof, regarding the plays that are called from situation to situation and from game to game.
Yes, the directive from Steelers president Art Rooney II at the conclusion of last season looking ahead to this season was to “score more points.”
It didn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
The need to do so was painfully obvious.
But the objective won’t be to threaten the NFL single-season scoring record.
The idea, as Sullivan detailed, will be to field an offense capable of providing what’s required based on the opponent in a given week.
Some weeks that’ll mean having to grind it out.
Some weeks that’ll mean being able to air it out.
They still want to run the ball, but they don’t just want to run the ball.
What remains to be seen is how much the players will be trusted when running isn’t enough.
The offense is much more established than it was at this juncture last season, when Mitch Trubisky was replacing Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, or last October when Pickett replaced Trubisky.
But the offense is still young, developing and transitioning.
It’s still not a finished product.
If progress, growth and production are stunted because the fear of committing turnovers, making mistakes and ultimately losing games based on the players’ relative inexperience outweighs the determination to make plays and win games, a condition that understandably but clearly afflicted the Steelers last season, it’s going to be a problem.
But it’ll be Tomlin who will ultimately have to answer for that if it comes to that, not Canada.
He’s a convenient scapegoat. And his Xs & Os, his concepts are not above scrutiny. But he’s following orders much more than he is dictating policy when it’s time to decide whether to be aggressive or conservative.
If the Steelers can straddle the fine line between the two, the offense ought to be good enough to win with more often than not.
If they can’t they’ll have only themselves to blame, one guy in particular.
Just not the guy everyone would prefer to blame.